Teenager’s Void

By Melinda Aissani

Our self-expression in our youth is one of the most powerful times in our lives. The freedom to explore the self and to choose the ‘tribe’ we wish to join from the music the clothing and the general aspects of any particular chosen subculture will often define who we become in adulthood, or at least help carve out our individual identity. Very much driven by a wish to be ‘part’ of something usually that was either underground, shocking or just upset their parents, subcultures became an absolute for most young people. A new exhibition in Coventry the UK’s biggest annual photography exhibition, tracing 100 years of British youth culture consists of presenting images by professional photographers, selected from over 10,000 images submitted by the public via the museum’s website. Yet in our internet online world have we lost the intimacy of cultures youthful tribes, those ‘places’ that only came about because of word of mouth, more underground than popularist? Find out more in Teenager’s Void

Running alongside the exhibition find key objects highlighting many a youth movement or items so associated with certain timings. A minidisc player, disposable cameras, rave flyers and metal band t-shirts are scattered through the show. And personal stories by professional photographers are exposed in sections dedicated to the teenage bedroom, as Saturday hang-outs and first loves. The pieces are archived from the lived experiences of young people from the 1920s to today. It originated as a photographic collection linked to the 1990s countercultural fashion and culture magazine Sleaze Nation.

Normski’s one of the photographers in the exhibition who shares his own experience and pictures. As a teenager in the early-80s, Normski would walk down his street in Camden, armed with a stack of magazines and a bag of 10 pence pieces. He used to take fantastic pictures from concerts and shared them with magazine editors. His camera was his ticket to concerts. He was interested, as a photographer, to capture a cultural scene as it unfolded around him from the paint-splattered graffiti artists, the gravity-defying breakdancers, including homegrown artists like Demon Boyz and Cookie Crew, as well as touring US stars like Dr Dre.

These images capture the timeless, moment of the beautiful things that will last in time thanks to his photos.


“ when you’re youthful, you’re part of changes that become global changes. You look back and think, that was my time.”

Normski

For many subcultures explode, especially during times of liberation and independence. this has been the case over many in the last few decades and going back to the turn of the 20th century. However, it was only in the 1950s that youth culture became democratised because the western world was out of the shadow of war and found themselves in comfortable financial situations so young people were not forced to leave school early to get a job and suddenly it wasn’t a movement just for ‘rich young things’ but for all and this was when the term teenager was coined.

Crowd at Dingwalls gets bum-rushed from the door before Ultramagnetic MC’s hit the stage London 1989 image Normski

In the 1920s, jazz music and motor cars were at the centre of a European subculture and were the beginning of the break from the constraints of social etiquette. The Bright Young Things,  was a nickname given by the press to a group of Bohemian young aristocrats in 1920s London. They threw flamboyant fancy dress parties, went on elaborate treasure hunts through nighttime London, and some drank heavily or used drugs.

In the 1930s, young people express themselves through art, and surrealism was attempting to shock the world with their games and anti-social behaviour. The Surrealists were at one and the same time a serious art movement and a parody of other art forms and political movements. Whilst in North America, the Great Depression caused widespread unemployment and poverty, and a consequent malaise among adolescents that found its expression in urban youth gangs, the so-called “dead end kids. Stage and screen both refected the obsession with this genre as well as comic book stories. And so the bad boys and girls in gangs were born.

During 1940’s avant-garde artists like Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Marc Chagall fled Europe following the outbreak of World War II. Many European artists choose the United States to explore art, it was an era where a subculture of surrealism and avant-garde experimentation developed in New York City, becoming the new centre of the art world.

And then women start to dress in one colour; black. Teenagers start a business in Europe, namely, black marketeers. Selling (at inflated prices) items hard to get during the war such as chocolate, stockings close-fitting etc. Inevitably, this subculture continued to break the rules and the image of criminality becomes a braver image; a youth as the embodiment of resistance. Like the internet now the radio was becoming important, it was the first almost instantaneous mass media with the power to create large subcultures by spreading the ideas of small subcultures across a wide area.

In the 1950s at the end of the war, the youth felt they must rebuild the destroyed life. Artists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus transferred their French resistance underground campaign to the context of a cultural revolution and Europe joined the movement.

Characterized as the emphasis on freedom of the individual influenced of existential bohemianism through the 1950s and into the 1960s under the guise of the beat generation. Think Jazz, Black clothes and free-flowing music and verse.

At the same time, as a result of American post-war prosperity, a new identity emerged for youth subculture: the teenager, a new kind of brand bought a news liberal youth, where Jazz culture was transformed into Rock and Roll.

The consensus generally tended to be that the modern urban environment offered all the bright lights and benefits of the modern world but was often yet divided into two classes, the aristocracy, and the working class, who until now had never had the luxury to stop working. Think leather biker jackets jeans stilettos and greased hair, these were the outfits of rebellious 1950s youth.

The 1960s bought other subcultures including the rude boy. From Jamacia to the UK it coincided with the popular rise of rocksteady music, dancehall celebrations and sound system dances. Rude boys dressed in the latest fashions suited and booted and always looked ‘sharp’.

Indeed, subcultures were often based on socializing and wild behaviour, often centred around politics. In the United States, these included the Black Panthers and the Yippies. In Europe, a political movement to renew the student system gained a lot of momentum and has turned the rules of the states upside down. It all started, in Paris, France in May 1968, with a university student uprising, supported by Jean-Paul Sartre and 121 other intellectuals who signed a statement asserting “the right to disobedience.” T

The uprising brought the country to a standstill and caused the government to call a general election rather than run the risk of being toppled from power. It was the first time in history that all teenagers from all social backgrounds was different from each other, but were united, hand in hand, clutching each other that became a tremendous victory.

Isle of Wight Festival UK 1970 Image Peter Francis

It was in the 70’s that the violent rebellion of the youth was transformed into a pacifist rebellion, where everyone is equal, Peace and Love were the emblematic slogan. The hippie, bought love, not war which involved opposition to the Vietnam War, opposition to nuclear weapons, and the advocacy of world peace. Very much highlighted by letting the hair grow long, an androgynous trend, flowing wide easy clothes and multi-coloured items of fashion.

And then came discos in the 19070s. This had started life in underground gay clubs and bars and soon “took over” all aspects of youth life.

But music attracted a significant audience and a war of musical genres was becoming huge and important, between disco and punk. Punk exploded on the streets of London initially as a dissatisfied youth took to much anti-social behaviour (as it was seen at the time) in protest at the recession and general state of the ruling government and social hierarchy that was still deeply steeped in the British mentality.

Image Neil Massey

As countries like the UK stayed in recession into the early 1980s, the need for self-expression continued into a subculture that appeared very much from the art and fashion students who in many ways were interested in general cultural ideals. Design to music architecture via literature fashion and music had to have a heritage to be perceived as interesting. this was the birth of the Trendy Culture, very much born out of a handful of students in London’s burgeoning club culture. One that was so opposed to the discus of the 1970s with strong door policies that if you didn’t look right you didn’t get in. By the mid-1980s terms like trend, design, culture and concept became part of the common parlance thanks to these individuals.

Coined in the early days as New Romantics fashions were flamboyant and they identified themselves using a number of alternative terms including “Futurists” and “the cult with no name.” The 1980s also saw the birth of street culture bringing break dancing, hip hop and rap and then house music as part of the subculture. The small clubs often had a mixture of people wearing the new wave of the street and intellectually driven Avant-Garde designers alongside streetwear staples from often deadstock 1970s Adidas, Puma and Nike which grew into brand new pieces with heavy gold jewellery worn as a status symbol, yet both sides danced away to old skool underground soul, rave groove early house and hip hop. As there was no internet it was still very much a word-of-mouth club scene.

The last big subculture to ever really exist as something that started underground was the rave generation. Along came acid house music and with it the proliferation of raves in fields in the middle of nowhere smiley T-shirts and the infamous party drug ecstasy. Few knew this movement that had started on the island of Ibiza would spread all over the globe terrifying many a parent.

Image Tommy Sussex

And then along came the internet, and the decline of subcultures that relied on close-knit word-of-mouth infections to keep them afloat and exclusive all at the same time. The web allowed small subcultures to grow into large global online communities, and the small personalisation of these groups was gone forever. It was in the1990’s a new generation started, the term Generation X or Gen X, popularized by Douglas Coupland used to describe the generation that followed the Baby Boom Generation, in the early 1990s. Although in the 90s there was still a level of subcultures like Brit Pop nothing was intimate anymore, the information was out for all to share. what happened was that sub-cultures became even more split up into micro subcultures but with a much wider audience.

Indeed, following the arrival of the new technology, subcultures started to decrease. On March 20, 2014, Alexis Petridis, a journalist for the British newspaper The Guardian, claimed that subcultures were rapidly declining, with a loss of culture.

The social media we know so well today took over from subculture and took it in a different direction. No longer minute groups of like-minded people it became about numbers explosions of numbers and the more were seen as the better. More miniature sub-cultures with far more ‘members’.

The void of physical subcultures, belonging to a concept or a group changed. Today if teenagers want to bring their own subcultures it means all that they need to be popular on social media.

However, if you are a fan of the documentation of some of these youth cultures over the years then a trip to Coventry will offer much to amuse.

The Museum of Youth Culture is currently based in London, but will relocate to a larger permanent home in Digbeth, Birmingham in 2025. But the aim will be always the same, to preserve and share stories of youth fashion, music, culture and social movements.

Find out more at 1854 the multi-award-winning digital media platform that sits at the intersection of photography and everything.

Grown Up in Britain: 100 Years of Teenage Kicks runs until 12 February 2023 at The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry